Standing with Erasmus, Undaunted

It all started during a golf outing on the plush courses of northern Maine (summer, I presume) among Bowdoin president Barry Mills and Thomas Klingenstein, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute, that I guess Mills would like to have back. That day at the links, or rather Mills’ public recollection of it, launched a National Association of Scholars’ 363 page study of the curriculum and education offerings of Bowdoin College. In his fall 2010 convocation address, where he addressed challenges facing liberal arts education, Mills made public a brief conversation he had had with Klingenstein. Mills reported that his unnamed golfing partner stated “I would never support Bowdoin—you are a ridiculous liberal school that brings all the wrong students to campus for all the wrong reasons.” In response, Thomas Klingenstein reported that this statement (link no longer available), susceptible of sounding racist, had been falsely attributed to him.

A predictable back and forth followed among interested parties. Klingenstein then pulled a Tom Doniphon of sorts and funded the NAS report on Bowdoin because “curiosity replaced anger.” Or was it more like “you, you pick it up, Valence“? Indeed, Klingenstein reports he took seriously President Mills’s convocation address statement that a conversation needs to occur about the challenges facing liberal arts colleges in fulfilling their mission. This permitted Klingenstein “to open up a discussion on issues of paramount interest: the defense of the West and the liberal arts” by funding a voluminous report on Bowdoin. Mills, I told you to pick it up.

Much has been said about the National Association of Scholars’ report on the decline of liberal education at Bowdoin College. Even Mills has given a response, if only a predictable one. I suppose most of it goes without saying. At this point, we know the curriculum scorecard at elite liberal arts colleges. I have not read the entire report given its 300+ pages length, but the sections I have read certainly make sense. I take Bowdoin professor Jean Yarbrough at her word when she says in her letter to the Bowdoin Orient that “much of what the NAS report describes is, I am sorry to say, spot on.” Yarbrough notes that in certain respects the study is flawed because it doesn’t acknowledge the courses that are offered to serious humanities students at Bowdoin. Not much is mandated, though. Yarbrough’s highly qualified criticism of the report resonated with me.

I remember bemoaning as a freshman to a respected professor in the honors program certain misgivings I had about the school’s hollowed curriculum only to be told that the resources and courses were certainly present to ensure a thorough liberal arts education. However, the burden was on me to put it together. I did. Perhaps that is even the larger point for conservatives and libertarians in this and so many other situations. We criticize institutions to a fare-thee-well, while forgetting the wealth, resources, and opportunities most of us possess, and the options for maneuver these afford us. Re-creation and re-articulation of timeless ideas, practices, and ideals awaits only the presence of a creative minority to venture them again in any number of endeavors. This is the entrepreneurialism that we are in need of, the kind that can deliver a series of social, cultural, and educational re-foundings that finally jettison the Gnostic impulse of the Left. Law and politics may indeed begin to take care of themselves once these have occurred.

The NAS Report, among other things, hones in on the institutionalized relativism of the curriculum. The college has retreated from requirements in philosophy, literature, government, history, and has increased its offerings in multicultural and narrow ideological courses. For example, would you like a class in “Queer Gardens,” which will provide you a survey of the horticultural achievements of “gay and lesbian gardeners” that also examines classic gardening texts from a queer perspective? If so, you’re in luck. As Yarbrough reminds in her response (“This politicization ought to come as no surprise. It was exactly what in 1962 the “Port Huron Statement” put out by Students for a Democratic Society advised radicals to do.”)

I suppose sunlight on these matters is generally a good thing. However, we miss the point if we attribute this to just ideological fervor or the dismissal of the Western tradition in favor of Africana courses. It is that, but more is happening. Perhaps the best contrast is provided in Naomi Schaefer Riley’s WSJ review of Earl Shorris’ The Art of Freedom. Shorris set forth to meet poverty head-on, seeing it for what it is in America: a moral and spiritual disorder. This insight was supplied him when he asked a female prisoner at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor:

“Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

His chosen weapon to fight it was a Great Books curriculum (the Clemente Course in the Humanities) initially offered to a few dozen poverty-stricken residents of New York. It is now a well-funded enterprise. As Riley observes,

The spirit of the Great Brooks program was a key part of the idea: There would be no chasing after trendy reading lists or narrow relevance. When Shorris went to recruit students in the South Bronx, in New York City, a white social worker asked him if he were going to teach African history. “No,” he said. “We will teach American history. Of course the history of black people is very important in the development of the United States.””

To charges that he was ignoring the need to teach the various oppressions which characterize learning at many colleges (cough, Bowdoin, cough), “Shorris argued that the study of the humanities is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor.” Riley concludes with a touching story of a young male student in the program who had a violent past. He told Shorris that one day at work a female co-worker had enraged him so much that he was consumed with anger toward her:

I wanted to smack her up against the wall. I tried to talk to some friends to calm myself down a little, but nobody was around.” Shorris asked him what he did, “fearing this was his one telephone call from the city jail.” Instead, he told Shorris, “I asked myself, ‘What would Socrates do?’ “

Exactly, this is the kind of hope that Shorris highlights, is it not? We are not the mere outcome of various ideologies sucking us in as a result of class, race, gender, sexual orientation. Instead we are free beings able to wonder and know the good that we should do. And this is possible in a community of learners who are open to knowing the truth about themselves. The denial of the joy that comes from such education and the habits it inculcates is the largest failure of our contemporary ethos in higher education. I suppose we needed Earl Shorris’ light from the lowly denizens of New York and Chicago to bring this into relief. Shorris has here shown tenured professors and their students what they are to be about.

This particular Earl leads us to the Renaissance humanist and monk Desiderius Erasmus who himself was reviled for seeing the madness of his own day through his immense classical learning. Jacques Barzun records in his great study, From Dawn to Decadence, that Erasmus frequently exclaimed “What a joy it is to be alive.” In the final pages, Barzun predicts that a corrupt, materialistic, and prosperous West will finally be rescued from its interminable boredom by restless men and women. “These radicals,” Barzun says, will “study the old neglected literary and photographic texts” and find in them the sources of a deeper life. Their efforts will “look with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing” even as they reopen “works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them.” In finding a past they will “use it to create a new present.” Of course, their recollections and histories will be poor, but the result will be a “resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.”